Natural Keys to Cold and Flu Prevention
The colder, shorter days of autumn and winter can make us more vulnerable to the viruses that cause colds and flu, including the rhinovirus (colds) and the influenza virus (flu). Let me help you stay well this season with some healthy lifestyle tips.
Wash Your Hands Frequently
Viruses spread by contact. Computer keyboards, cell phones, door handles, railings, shaking hands, and even touching serving utensils at a buffet are all common ways we're exposed to viruses. Simply using a pen at the bank or grocery store can expose you to a considerable number of germs, so at peak cold and flu season, I recommend carrying your own pen with you. Be aware of the surfaces you touch throughout the day and wash your hands often.
I don't recommend antibacterial soaps as many contain triclosan, a chemical that can actually increase certain bacteria levels. Any conventional liquid or bar soap with warm water will do the trick. A quick rinse isn't enough, be sure to rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds and remember to scrub under your nails. If you don't have easy access to a washroom, hand sanitizers that use natural ingredients including essential oils or citrus seed extracts are effective. Some natural bug repellents double as excellent hand sanitizers and smell great. I recommend regular use of natural sanitizing sprays that can be used to clean your computer peripherals and other items you routinely touch. There are many recipes online for making your own natural hand sanitizer using essential oils. Some of the best to use include lavender, tea tree, clove, and peppermint oils. For best results, they are often blended with aloe vera, witch hazel, and vitamin E.
In addition to natural soaps and sanitizers, you can also make use of a UV surface sterilizer. About the size of a small cell phone, these portable scanners can help clean surfaces without the use of chemicals; simply pass the UV light over the surface you want to sterilize. They're great for germ-covered surfaces that are hard to clean like keyboards, cell phones, remote controls, and cutting boards.
Don't Touch Your Face
A University of California study found that most people touch their face about 16 times per hour. Simply becoming aware of this and avoiding touching your face (including your eyes, nose, and lips) can significantly reduce your exposure to viruses and lower your risk of infection.
Regular exercise has been shown to decrease the risk of colds and flu by up to 50%. Even walking a little more each day can help get your heart rate up and is easy to incorporate into any daily routine. A study of over 1000 people confirmed that just 20 minutes a day of walking for five days a week resulted in 43% fewer sick days when compared to those who exercised one day a week or less. Those that did get sick had milder symptoms, with the flu or cold having a shorter duration.
Long aerobic sessions are generally not recommended, and extreme exercise can actually decrease immunity. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is not only the most efficient method of aerobic exercise; it also brings the greatest overall health benefits. HIIT consists of alternating short periods of intense exercise with periods of low or moderate intensity training. For more information, I recommend the book FastExercise by Dr. Michael Mosely which explains in detail the amazing health benefits of this time-saving exercising method.
Improve Sleep and Reduce Stress
Sleep may be the most important aspect of a healthy lifestyle, greatly enhancing our immune system's ability to fight infection. Most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep for sufficient production of natural killer cells, which are critical to our immune response to pathogens, including flu and cold viruses. A sleep survey published in Life Science found that those who slept five hours or less had a 28% higher risk of a cold, and an 82% higher risk of the flu, pneumonia, or ear infection as compared to those who got seven or eight hours. I also recommend power naps or meditation for 15-30 minutes each day, which can help recharge the immune system, especially if you work in a stressful environment.
You can enhance the benefits of sleep by choosing a mattress made of organic Dunlop latex with wool quilted under the organic cotton cover to balance body temperature and dramatically reduce pressure points that can interrupt sleep. To further improve the health benefits of sleep, consider using a mattress protector made of Celliant fibre, proven to facilitate healing by increasing blood oxygenation and circulation. Sleeping on a 5° incline may also have benefits for circulation, immune health, acid reflux, snoring, and back pain.
Avoiding blue light at night can also make a tremendous difference in sleep quality. For bedroom and night stand lamps I recommend using LED bulbs that remove the blue portion of the light spectrum which negatively affects the production of the sleep inducing hormone melatonin. Special orange tinted glasses are available as an alternative way to shield your eyes from blue light. There are also natural L-tryptophan supplements that work especially well when combined with the glasses or light bulbs.
A study of 294 college students presented at the 50th Scientific Assembly of the American Academy of Family Physicians found that those who regularly performed nasal irrigation had a significant reduction in colds when compared to the untreated or placebo groups. An important part of traditional yoga cleaning rituals, the process involves making a saline solution by dissolving salt in water, and using either a small teapot type device called a neti pot, or a more modern nasal irrigator like the Nasaline, which I prefer. For even better results, I recommend combining xylitol and baking soda with the salt. Xylitol is a natural sugar derived from birch bark that helps keep bacteria from adhering to the mucous membranes of the nasal passages. Nasal rinsing can also help reduce the duration and intensity of a cold or flu if you do happen to catch one.
Caloric restriction from periods of fasting can boost the body's immune response with a wide variety of proven health benefits; even restricting calories by 10%-30% can make a big difference. To learn more about intermittent fasting, be sure to read The FastDiet from Dr. Michael Moseley.
I recommend combining intermittent fasting (I fast every Monday and Thursday) with some of the dietary supplements featured in next month's article. In Part II I will outline the importance of beneficial bacteria and gastrointestinal microbiota, and how healthful food choices and dietary supplements can help reduce both the incidence and duration of colds and flu when combined with the lifestyle solutions detailed here.
Last month I outlined a number of lifestyle factors that can help reduce the risk of catching a cold including nasal rinsing, hand washing, and stress reduction. Maintaining a healthy indoor environment and properly balanced levels of gut bacteria are also important factors for keeping the immune system strong and lowering the risk of getting the sniffles.
Humidify the Air: The Benefits of Humidification
Humidity plays a key role in our effort to manage an ideal indoor environment for optimum health. A humidifier helps protect and maintain the most important of air purifiers, our own bodies! This time of year, we're constantly exposed to dry air. Our indoor climate must be humidified in fall and winter to maintain a healthy living space.
Humidifiers use either ultrasonic, evaporation, or steam technology, with models that can humidify rooms up to 1000 square feet. Steam and evaporative units are excellent choices, but generally produce higher sound levels than ultrasonic models. Ultrasonic systems are the quietest, making them ideal for bedrooms. I recommend models that use demineralization granules to reduce white mineral dust, which can be an issue with ultrasonic machines. Steam and evaporative humidifiers do not require demineralization.
Winter air dries out our eyes, nose, and mucous membranes, increasing susceptibility to airborne pathogens including viruses and bacteria. Oxygen uptake decreases and transfer to the blood system becomes less efficient. Fatigue, headache, and reduced ability to concentrate are all symptoms of a reduced oxygen supply, all which can be remedied by adding humidity to the air. Proper humidification can help boost immune function and help speed up recovery from colds and flu. In addition, our windpipe's natural self-cleansing function is negatively affected by dry air, potentially contributing to infection and respiratory tract complaints. Managing humidity levels can help alleviate dry air passages and nasal membranes, allowing for better rest. Plenty of rest enables the body to recover sooner.
Clean the Air
Exposure to airborne pathogens like viruses and bacteria naturally increase the risk of infection, but dust mites, pollen, and mold spores can all be hazardous to our health.
HEPA air purifiers have traditionally been the most popular air filtration solution, as HEPA filters can effectively trap bacteria, viruses, mold spores, and common allergy triggers. HEPA filters are unable to kill bacteria present in the air and on indoor surfaces. An effective alternative to the mechanical design of HEPA filters, new technologies that use hydroxyl radicals can kill many airborne and surface contaminants including mold spores, viruses, and dust mites.
Immune Boosting Foods and Dietary Supplements
There is a very strong link between immune system function and a healthy balance of beneficial gut bacteria. With 70%-80% of immune cells located in the gut, this relationship is currently one of the most active areas of medical research. Studies published in the Korean Journal of Family Medicine found that probiotic supplements can help prevent colds, while other studies have shown they can reduce the frequency and duration of effects from gastrointestinal disorders and respiratory disease.
Sometimes called "friendly flora," good bacteria are proven to help the body effectively fight invading viruses and "bad" bacteria, reducing the risk of colds and flu. Other benefits can include improvements with inflammation, cardiovascular health, weight management, and skin conditions. Healthy gut bacteria increase the absorption of minerals and vitamins from the food we eat. Growing scientific evidence suggests a strong “gut-brain” connection, and that our gut health plays a role in keeping us happy. Lower levels of good bacteria are associated with anxiety, depression, as well as learning and memory problems.
Lactobacillus paracasei 8700:2 and Lactobacillus plantarum HEAL9 are probiotic strains that have been clinically studied to help reduce the incidence, symptoms, and severity of the common cold.
There are a number of things that can potentially interfere with the production of good bacteria. Problems may develop from the use of antibacterial mouthwashes, chlorinated water, colon cleanses, antibiotics, and medications like antidepressants, sleeping pills, and heartburn pills. Stress, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, artificial sweeteners, refined foods, and sugar may also adversely affect gut microbiota.
I recommend choosing foods and supplements that increase "good" gut bacteria. In addition to probiotic supplements, try to include more fermented foods in your diet, and foods that are high in resistant starch and soluble fibre. Also called "prebiotics", soluble fibre essentially provides food for the good bacteria. Some great examples of foods to look for include Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, blueberries, and cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli, and cauliflower. Legumes and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and Tempe are also healthy options.
Resistant starch is created by allowing certain foods like rice and potatoes to cool after cooking, which causes the starch to resist digestion and act like non-digestible soluble fibre. When you reheat after cooling, the starch becomes resistant to digestion and is converted by gut bacteria into short-chain fatty acids, which can help keep you feeling full longer, lower insulin levels, and assist with weight loss.
To complement the immune boosting effects of prebiotics and probiotics, I recommend taking a multivitamin with each meal and incorporating foods high in plant sterols, including legumes, nuts, whole grains, seeds, and rice bran solubles. Herbs with powerful immune properties include garlic, andrographis, Echinacea, Epicor, astragalus, and pine cone extract. Studies confirm that deficiencies in zinc, vitamin D, and Vitamin C are associated with a higher incidence of infection, so making these supplements part of your daily regimen is also recommended to help maintain healthy immune function.
Next month, I'll discuss vitamins, minerals, and herbs designed specifically to shorten the duration of a cold or flu, should you catch one.
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